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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Ghost sounds: new support for tinnitus sufferers

Oct 31, 2017 11:56PM ● By Melanie Wiseman

For me, it started out of the blue 24 years ago when I was just 35. For Elaine, it was after a car accident. Because of it, Tom gave up his career and all social functions. Barbara has lived with it for 22 years. For Paul, it came with no warning just a few months ago. It forced Solomon to sell his restaurant.

“It” is tinnitus, most commonly referred to as “ringing in the ears.”

Happily, there’s help for these frustrated people, thanks to the formation of the first local tinnitus support group, which now meets the second Saturday of every month.

There’s little research on this physical condition—which is experienced emotionally—and there are more unknowns than knowns. For now, a tinnitus support group is the closest thing to a cure.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is frequently described as a ringing, yet these “ghost sounds” can also sound like whooshing, buzzing, clicking, humming, hissing, crickets or roaring. The sound may be soft or loud, low or high pitched, intermittent or continuous, or feel like it’s coming from one ear or both. Its volume is stimulated by other loud noises.

Tinnitus is common, affecting about 45 million people or 10-15 percent of the population. For 25 percent of these people, its volume increases over time. It can induce anxiety, irritability, fatigue and depression, and cause changes in work, social and family relationships.

The most common cause of tinnitus is noise-induced hearing loss. Other causes include ear infections, Meniere’s disease, brain tumors, emotional stress, cardiovascular disease, head injury and earwax.

Hearing loss may have many different causes, but among tinnitus sufferers, the major cause is damage to the tens of thousands of minute hair cells in the inner ear.

A life-changing condition

Earlier this year, Elaine’s car was hit near Whitman Park by a driver who ran a red light. Her airbags deployed, resulting in damage to her inner ear.

“My world changed overnight,” said Elaine. “I now have a constant, high-pitched screech in my ears. I don’t have silence anymore. For a long time I only got two to three hours of sleep.”

Tom had to quit his job as a piano tuner and no longer goes to restaurants or attends social functions.

“It has completely changed [my] retirement,” said Tom. “It’s socially isolating.”

Barbara was a dental hygienist for years and believes her two-decade battle with tinnitus is the result of dental drill noises.

Paul’s tinnitus came on suddenly, without explanation.

“I have read a ton about tinnitus and have tried everything. I go to sleep each night hoping to wake up without it in the morning,” he said. “There is a big mental component, and you can let it ruin your life.”

Solomon’s tinnitus is the result of Meniere’s. It came and went over 15 years, but when it showed up again three years ago, it never left.

At the meeting, I learned that we were all grieving the loss of a way of life we once knew.

Support for those who need it

There is no one-size-fits-all fix, but the group discussed ways to avoid worsening the problem. Stay clear of loud noises. Mask sounds with silicone earplugs, noise canceling headphones, industrial-strength earmuffs, sound therapy or special hearing aids. Change your thinking.

“We see patients with tinnitus every day, all day,” said audiologist Joe McDermott. “The lack of cure and support can be debilitating. This group is important. We’ll have medical support at each meeting.”

The tinnitus support group meets at 1 p.m. on the second Saturday of every month at Colorado West Otolaryngologists, 2643 Patterson Road, Suite 503. For more information, call Elaine at 589-0305.